Groggy thanks to the sleep inducing tea she had drank the night before, Nan awoke to a knock on her bedroom door. Blinking against the glare of the morning's blazing light, she propped herself up in bed and said, “Come in.”
Smiling, Cora entered the room carrying a garment bag. “Good morning miss. Here is your dress for this evening. I’ll just drape it over this chair for you.”
Tiredly watching Cora move across the bedchamber to a red velvet armchair in the corner and gently set the bag along its length, Nan mumbled, “Thank you, Cora. What time is it?”
“It is nearing eight o'clock miss. My lady instructed us to let you sleep late, for you had an eventful evening,” answered Cora chipper.
And eight o'clock is late? Grumbled Nan to herself, feeling like she had been hit by a locomotive.
Lighting on the ‘us’ reference Cora had almost slipped by her, Nan swivelled her head back to the open door and caught sight of Shamus’s tall arthritic riddled frame, skulking in the corner behind the door, easing a large rectangular object onto the top of a small chest of drawers.
Nan watched him, briefly puzzled, until the item became clear and recognizing it she leapt off the bed (not caring she was only clad in her skimpy nightclothes) and rushed to his side.
“What is that doing here?” Nan shrieked, eyeing the familiar glass snake terrarium.
Removing his cap as usual and fumbling with it nervously, Shamus uttered uncomfortably, “I was told ta bring the beast up ta ye, lassie."
“What?” she bellowed, causing the poor groundskeeper to jump with fright.
Goosebumps ran up Nan's arms as she eyed the ominous terrarium and its ebony scaled occupant, who at that same moment was observing her with his glossy hematite orbs. The thought of sleeping in the same room with the loathsome reptile made Nan’s skin crawl. A deal is a deal remember. She reminded herself.
“Very well, but you kept it locked, right?” questioned Nan, taking a deep calming breath.
Jumping into attention as if stuck by a cattle prod, Shamus reached into his vest pocket and with shaky fingers produced a small bronze key, handed it to Nan, and said, “Aye here ye are lassie.”
“Thank you,” she mumbled, taking the key and fingering it uneasily, as if its mere presence near the tank might cause the lid to spring open and release its slithering prisoner.
At this point, the all but forgotten Cora reappeared from the closet holding out an already assembled outfit to Nan, saying, “Here you are miss, you’re all set. Now we’ll leave you to change. My lady is waiting for you in the library,” and she ushered Shamus out the door.
Alone with her new reptilian roommate, Nan stood in shocked silence for a moment. The night's revelations seeping back into her consciousness, along with the knowledge of her lessons ahead. Taking another steadying breath and donning her clothes, Nan sighed, "I'm really going to do this, I'm going to become a witch."
But you've always been one, a little voice in her head echoed.
“Ah, Anabel,” exclaimed Druantia approvingly as Nan walked through the library door. “Good morning, I trust you slept well.”
“Excellent,” assured Nan. “That tea of yours is a lethal weapon.”
“Yes, well my plants have many uses,” Druantia smirked, giving Nan a playful winked.
“You’ll have to teach me,” Nan grinned in return.
“All in good time.”
As Nan neared the large reading table Druantia sat at, she noticed that not only Hexia—roosted near one of the towering windows on a large tree root mounted to the floor—was there, but Beowulf and Gambit lurked in the room as well.
Sitting across from her great aunt at the table set with a tray of fresh fruits and biscuits, and a chilled pitcher of ice tea, compliments of Cora, Nan eyed Druantia glumly and said, “Did it have to be the snake? That’s as bad as giving me her,” she added, gesturing to the minatory raven.
"Stranger," the disagreeable bird cawed in return.
“Oh come now you two, it's time to put this grudge you seem to have for one another behind you," suggested Druantia diplomatic-like. "And you agreed you would help with the wards for the remainder of your stay, Anabel," she added.
“I know, but a snake, really?” Nan groaned.
“Just give Onyx a chance; I think you'll be surprised. Besides he belongs to you.”
“What do you mean? You’re giving him to me?” Nan frowned.
“He was never mine to give,” stated Druantia. “He has always been yours, I've only been watching over him."
“Huh?” Nan puzzled, more confused than ever.
“I didn't want to explain it last night for fear of giving you a meltdown, which is why I avoided your questions about Hexia, but tell me Anabel what have you heard in your Western world about witches?” probed Druantia.
“Well, the usual stuff. That they are old crones who fly on broomsticks, have warts, wear pointed hats, dress in black, cast spells and curses, dance with the devil around bonfires, cook in cauldrons, and keep black cats as familiars,” recited Nan.
“Ah ha, I see,” Druantia scowled, “Old crones indeed! All misguided propaganda the church has infused into the innocent naive minds of society.”
"So you're saying all of it is made up?" questioned Nan.
Composing her rising anger, Druantia answered, “Well no, not entirely, which brings me back to my point. Witches, as we're so commonly labelled, do not consort with the devil; fly on broomsticks, and all the rest of that mumble jumble. However, our ancestors did cook stews and that in cauldrons, used bonfires for warm and for celebration, and we did and still do cast spells, and have familiars."
"Ha-ha really? So where's your black cat," laughed Nan.
"She's right there," replied Druantia, pointing to the watching raven.
"You're shitting me?" baulked Nan, eyes as wide as saucers.
"No I am most certainly not 'shitting you'," retorted Druantia. "How do you think she knew who you were and showed you? Familiars are not what you've heard them to be."
"What do you mean?"
"Familiars are the ancestral protectors of the next generation," explained Druantia. "They are ancient members of a coven's family. Once a witch's soul has been reborn to its fullest, learning all they need to know, they are reborn one final time in the form of a familiar to help guide other members of their family and are continuously passed down the lines."
"So you're saying that that bird is a dead member of our family?" queried Nan, unconvinced.
"Then why does it keep calling me a stranger," she countered, in the hopes of tripping Druantia up and revealing the whole theory to be a sham.
"Because she's a disagreeable old goat," answered Druantia, scowling at the raven.
Nan was quiet for a couple of minutes, absorbing it all, wondering if she was truly open minded enough to believe it. Hexia did show me the gravestone, as if she was trying to tell me something, she mused.
Looking around the library as if to find the decision making answer, Nan's gaze fell on the mighty wolf lying beside Druantia's chair and said, "You said Beowulf belonged to Gwynedd, does that mean he's a familiar too?"
"Yes, he's Gwynedd's familiar. He wasn't walking with her when Meldun swiped her from the grounds and so he remains with me." The wolf looked up then, sadly, as if he understood the conversation.
"But he's a boy. I thought you said our family members were only girls?"
"As humans we are, but when we come back as familiars our sex can change," replied Druantia.
Hmm, she has an answer for everything, doesn't she? Nan frowned, deep in thought. There's no way she could be making this up.
"Gambit," continued Druantia, "Was my sister, Elaine's familiar. He remains in the sanctity of the house until the day comes when his next companion is revealed. He has been with the family the longest, his first charge being Blodwen."
"Wow," exclaimed Nan, staring at the aloof small bear shaped wolverine in awe. "And you say Onyx is mine?"
"Yes, that's right. He's been waiting for you for a long time," she smiled. "You two go back a long ways, for he was your familiar in your past life, when you were Anwen."
Nan was dumbstruck at this. Picturing the snake's black eyes staring at her every time she was near him as if waiting for her to recognize him, though she didn't realize that at the time. Could he really be a link to my past, Nan wondered, thinking of the snake in a new light.
"Do they have magic to?" inquired Nan once her voice came back to her.
"Not so much in the way of casting spells, no, but they communicate with us and guide us," answered Druantia.
"That's why people have seen you talking to the raven...I mean Hexia."
"Well yes, though I try to avoid doing so in public," admitted Druantia sheepishly.
"So she can talk to you as we are doing now?" Nan became eager to learn more, finding this new secret world she had stepped into fascinating.
"No, they can understand our speech, but can only communicate telepathically. They can communicate with us over great distances."
"Wow, I would never have believed any of this was real if you had told me a month ago," exclaimed Nan, still flabbergasted. "Wait, is that how you have known my movements since I arrived?"
Smirking, Druantia confirmed, "Yes, Gambit here is pretty good at being stealthy and watches much of what goes on around the manor, unseen."
"Oh, so it was you sneaking around behind me," smiled Nan, eyeing the black op wolverine.
"Now, let's get on with your lessons, shall we," announced Druantia, getting down to business. "First off, magic is not about waving wands and casting spells, though we sometimes do. Magic is found in the minds of those who believe in it and manifests itself in everyday life. It is merely a suspension of what is known and a belief and trust in the unknown. A source of respect and befriending of nature, its miraculous elements and energy pools one petitions for help. It is neither evil nor un-divine, but a natural connection to one’s self, with nature and the universe surrounding us.”
“Okay, but if it is so pure and innocent then why did my mom denounce it?” Nan frowned.
“It wasn’t that your mother didn’t believe, Anabel,” Druantia assured. “She was tired of living under the cloak of bias and suspicion our family has suffered from the outside world. Rhiannon desperately wanted to fit in and live what she perceived was a normal life, but she still believed. You see my dear, what is called the modern world still rejects and labels those of the old ways as pagans, witches, heathens, and heretics, who continuously feel the strangling condemnation of the Christian revolution.”
“But how will I know if I have what it takes to be a witch?”
“All you have to do is believe. Listen to your heart and it will come to you. It is your hereditary right and besides, you have Anwen’s power coursing through your veins. If nothing else her ring which you’re wearing will empower you.”
"This was Anwen’s ring?” exclaimed Nan, staring at her hand in wide eyed bafflement.
“Yes, the ring is a powerful talisman and the soul of Anwen’s power, of your power. Plus it embodies our family’s totem, the serpent.”
So Casey's suspicions were correct. There really is an ancient secret coven of witches who use a snake totem, and I'm in it!
“So how does it work?” urged Nan.
“All you have to do is respect nature and yourself and remain open to continual growth and learning. It’s very simple, Anabel. Our ways are all about being at peace and staying connected with yourself and the world around you and the possibility of new things. But keep in mind that with every action there will be an equal reaction.”
“You mean like karma?” questioned Nan.
“Precisely,” Druantia assured.
“Karma is not a sure thing though. People don’t always get what they deserve,” Nan countered.
“Perhaps not in this life, but the crimes of the past follow us and eventually it all gets resolved in the end,” Druantia schooled. “Now enough chatter, let’s get down to business. We’re working against the clock you know.”
“Whatever you do you’ll never teach me enough before tonight,” Nan moaned, suddenly feeling overwhelmed.
“Of course not, that would just be absurd. But I can awaken your inner strength and help you tap into the hidden knowledge you already possess,” confirmed Druantia.
“The gifts of our past are old and pre-date what some say is logical thinking and it all started with her,” Druantia began, pointing to a large copy of Christopher Williams’s Cerridwen, hanging majestically over the library's stone hearth.
“The goddess Cerridwen, the keeper of the cauldron, represented knowledge, regeneration, inspiration, and magic itself. Her gifts laid in herbs, animals, prophecy, enchantment, death and rebirth, and much more.”
Seeing the questioning look in Nan’s eyes, Druantia cut her off before she could ask and exclaimed, “Yes, I know she’s a figure of mythology, but there is always a hint of truth to all myths. Our Celtic ancestors did not see their deities as divine untouchable beings, but as ancestors themselves. So who’s to say that this mythical goddess was not originally just an ordinary woman?”
“I’ve read a little about her actually, in one of my mother’s books, called The Book of Talisman,” Nan added, trying to sound optimistic.
“Good, that’s a start,” smiled Druantia. “Each one of our family members has displayed one, if not more, of Cerridwen’s bountiful traits. Be it herbology or simple spell work. Your mother was a clairvoyant; unfortunately, her gift didn't let her perceive her own future. Your grandmother’s ability was augury, Gwynedd's talent was telekinesis, and mine is communing with nature and its creatures.
But Anwen was special, you are special. She was not only an oracle, but was talented in spell work and could communicate with animals and the otherworld. Powers, which lie within you. All we have to do is find them,” stated Druantia confidently.
“Easier said than done,” grumbled Nan.
“Oh don't be so pessimistic, Anabel. Now, pick up one of the apples off the tray beside you and tell me what you feel,” instructed Druantia.
Reaching over and grabbing one of the fresh smelling green apples off the tray, Nan replied, “It’s roundish and hard.”
“No, no, Anabel, you have to actually try,” Druantia scolded. “Close your eyes and hold the apple in both hands. Good! Explore out with your mind and focus on the apple, nothing else around you and tell me what you feel.”
Frowning with her eyes shut, Nan sighed, feeling ridiculous and ventured to feel the illustrious sensation Druantia expected her to. She felt nothing. However, just when she was about to open her eyes a slight tingling began needling up her fingertips.
Stunned, Nan held her mind tighter on the vibration, now moving up her hands, her senses burrowing deep into the energy travelling within her. Then, as if a great dam burst forth under the pressure of a mountainous wave of water, she felt the barrier let go and opening her eyes saw the apple floating over her upturned palms.
Druantia’s astonished expression a mirror of her own, Nan was elated as the age-old witch said, “Well, well, that was unexpected. There’s no doubting it now my dear, you are a true born witch.”
The rest of the afternoon was spent with Druantia setting up a bunch of different exercises to test the limitations of Nan’s untouched powers. Before the evening was upon them it had been revealed to both stunned parties, that not only could Nan levitate fruit (an ability Druantia did not expect her to possess), but could reach out with her mind to the world around them and perceive what neither could see.
Feeling they had made great progress for such a short time, Druantia leaned back in her chair and proclaimed, "Unbelievable, you have definitely surprised me my dear. I knew Anwen's abilities...your abilities, were unprecedented, but I never imagined you could do so much. Based on what I've seen today, there's no doubt you still possess all of your former powers, which means you can probably commune with the dead."
"Do you really think so?" Nan gave an involuntary shudder at the thought, but had to admit it explained a lot. All she had learned explained a lot about herself, her bizarre sixth sense and knowledge of ghosts. It all made sense to her now.
"Oh yes, which is why the white lady came to you last night," Druantia revealed. "Now that your mind is open there is no stopping the flood of information and power you will begin to discover. The key is to relax and focus. Don’t rush it.”
"Okay I won't," Nan promised.
“Come, we best be getting ready or we’ll be late for our engagement this evening,” Druantia announced, rising and cueing Nan to do the same.
As they made for the door with the string of familiars following behind them, Nan gazed over the two four legged companions and frowned. "What about my mother, didn't she have a familiar?"
"Ah yes, she did," sighed Druantia mournfully, holding the door open for them all to file out. "The night Meldun attacked her, Rhiannon did not just lose her husband, but her familiar as well. Meldun killed them both."
"What?" Nan gasped in shock. "How horrible. I didn't think familiars could die."
"Oh yes," assured Druantia as they walked down the east wing back to the civilized part of the manor. "They can be killed, but only by another witch or warlock and it is a devastating travesty for a witch to suffer. For you see, when a witch's familiar dies, it kills a part of her soul as well, because they are connected. She never recovers from it."
"My poor mother," moaned Nan, sympathizing with the woman more after hearing her tragic history.
"Make sure you guard yours well, so the same doesn't happen to you," Druantia cautioned.
Nan’s heart was electrified when she returned to her room. Her newfound powers and hidden aspects of herself swirled around inside her just waiting to be explored. Never had she felt so alive, so vibrant, like she could take on the world.
Knowing she should be getting ready for the evening ahead of her and remembering her promise to Druantia not to overdue it, Nan spun on the spot, yearning to test her abilities some more. Then her gaze fell on the glass terrarium sitting half hidden in the corner behind the door.
Stepping forward with an anticipated breath, Nan took the little bronze key from her jean's back pocket and lifted it to the lock on the tank's lid, then took another deep breath to quiet her accelerating pulse.
Hearing the distinct click of the lock opening, she removed the lid and slowly lowered her hand to where the watchful serpent lay expectant on the aspen. I hope this works, she thought to herself.
Onyx investigated Nan's smooth skin with his flickering tongue, as she lifted up his bulk gently with both hands. She watched him, enthralled, as his lustrous cool onyx gem coloured scales slithered explorative over her arm. His studious round, unblinking eyes catching the slightest movement and shadow, while his tongue continuously licked the air to orient himself with her scent.
A tingling ran up Nan's skin from the snake's movement as it coiled itself around her limb. Never had she expected letting a snake slither over her body to be so intensely provocative. It felt natural, invigorating, as if his cylindrical body belonged on her.
All she had known was slipping away, opening up to a new road, stretching out endless before her. Eyeing the reptile, Nan reached into the depths of her soul and bringing him up closer to her face, she asked, “Can you understand me?”Yeeessss Anabel. Welcome home, came the reptile's reply in her mind.